This recession might well have been a deep one even with good government policies, but “government failure” added greatly to its length and severity, including its continuation to the present. In the U.S., these government actions include an almost $1 trillion in federal spending that was supposed to stimulate the economy. Leading government economists, backed up by essentially no evidence, argued that this spending would stimulate the economy by enough to reduce unemployment rates to under 8%.

Such predictions have been so far off the mark as to be embarrassing. Although definitive studies are not yet available about the stimulus package’s overall effects on the American economy, most everyone agrees that it was badly designed and executed. What the stimulus did produce is a sizable expansion of the federal deficit and debt.

The expansion of government resulting from the stimulus and other government programs contributed to rising deficits and growing public debt just when the U.S. faced the prospect of big increases in future debt due to built-in commitments to raise government spending on entitlements. Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare already account for about 40% of total federal government spending, and this share will grow rapidly during the next couple of decades unless major reforms are adopted.

A reasonably well-functioning government would try to sharply curtail the expected growth in entitlements, but such reform is not part of the budget deal between Congress and President Obama that led to a higher debt ceiling. Nor, given the looming 2012 elections, is such reform likely to be addressed seriously by the congressional panel set up to produce further reductions in federal spending.

It is a commentary on the extent of government failure that despite the improvements during the past few decades in the mental and physical health of older men and women, no political agreement seems possible on delaying access to Medicare beyond age 65. No means testing (as in Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget roadmap) will be introduced to determine eligibility for full Medicare benefits, and most Social Security benefits will continue to start for individuals at age 65 or younger.

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